When most people talk about football history, they rarely talk of anything before the 19th century, when most of the modern football games were first codified. The truth, though, is that human beings have been playing football for as long as they could sew up animal skins and stuff them full of hair. If that thing resembled a sphere, all the better.
Case in point: Cuju, a form of football that began its life in China roughly 2,500 years ago. Cu is Chinese for “kicking the ball with feet” and ju translates as “a stuffed ball made of hide.” Clearly, the Chinese are much more efficient with language than we are.
Cuju started as a military training sport. If you could keep a stuffed ball in the air without using your hands while still dealing with ferocious tiger-style attacks from your opponent, killing your enemies on a battlefield was cake by comparison.
As with all fun games, though, word got it, and Cuju quickly spread from the military to the aristocracy. During the Han Dynasty — roughly 2491 (Horse) – 2917 (Rat) — the emperor and all his rich friends organized 12-on-12 matches at the Imperial Palaces. Cuju rules were first codified durign this period, and early Cuju teams had to defend six goals. Whichever team scored on all six goals first won the game and was showered with concubines. Tom Brady’s sperm had nothing on the seed of the best Cuju players.
As those Cuju stars began procreating at an alarming rate, the sport became even more popular, and during the Tang Dynasty — about 3315 (Tiger) – 3604 (Rabbit) — the game became a national obsession. The rules had changed a bit between dynasties, though. Gone were the hair-and-feather-stuffed balls, replaced by some of the earliest air-filled sphere technology. The six-goals were also gone. Two options took their place — tall goal posts with nets between them on either side of the playing field (Zhu Qiu Cuju), or one set of goal posts with an opening between them in the center of the field. (Bai Da Cuju)
It was the Bai Da game that became popular among the general public during the Song Dynasty — 3657 (Monkey) – 3976 (Rabbit) — because it de-emphasized goal scoring in favor of kicking technique. Teams started with a certain number of points, and they lost points for letting the ball touch the ground, kicking it too low, laying hands on the ball, and other nitpicky little things that probably turned pro Cuju players into crybaby prima donnas. Whoever ended up with the most points won the match.
Sometime during the Ming Dynasty, everyone got sick and tired of all the whining, and Cuju died a slow, painful death about 4 or 5 centuries ago. 14 centuries is a pretty good run for any football game, really. If any of our current football games survive that long, it’ll be a miracle.
By the way, legend has it that a 17-year-old girl kicked the collective ass of a whole team of army soldiers in a Cuju match. That this legend never became a Zhang Ziyi film is a supreme tragedy. However, you can expect announcers to beat that story to death during the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which will be held in China in September, just to remind the world how long women have been playing football.